Ryan Wallman: Marketers must loosen their grip on the creative process

Creativity can be a mercurial concept so in order to make the biggest impact there are three steps marketers should take.


In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s creative awards season. Cannes Lions has just come and gone for another year, with all the hype and hubris that goes along with it.

But what does it all mean for marketers? Should you give a flying fornication about the creativity of your agency, let alone whether they win any awards for it?

The answer, as with almost everything in marketing, is that it depends.

Before we get into the reasons for that, I should declare my bias here. I work for a creative agency, so naturally I have a vested interest in the value of creative work. But I’ve also been a fairly vocal critic of creativity for its own sake (or ‘creative wank’ to use the scientific term), so I would like to think I’m relatively balanced on this issue. Plus, I haven’t won many awards – on principle, of course.

Anyway, this is about you. How much should you concern yourself with the creative work that supports your marketing?

In answering that question, it’s worth keeping in mind that creativity is a mercurial concept. Because it’s not easy to measure, it tends to be a source of buttock-clenching anxiety for what Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland refers to as “the arithmocracy”. And so, inevitably, the people who control the purse strings have put an increasing focus on creative outputs that can be measured, which has led us to the siren calls of precision targeting and digital metrics and assorted ad tech flimflammery.

Proving the value of creativity

While it’s difficult to assess overall creativity numerically, there is some pretty convincing evidence to demonstrate its value.

Exhibit A, which has featured on several industry blogs of late, is from a 2014 study by Admap. This research, based on an analysis of more than 1,500 case studies, ranked the top 10 factors that drive advertising profitability.

Creative execution was the second largest contributor to advertising profitability after market size. Nothing to be scoffed at, then. As BBH’s Tom Roach says: “Creative execution is not ‘colouring in’. It matters more than nearly everything else.”

This finding was echoed in a 2017 Nielsen analysis of advertising effectiveness, based on nearly 500 campaigns across all media platforms.

In this analysis, creative quality was easily the most important factor for generating sales, contributing more than double the next highest factor (reach). Meanwhile, targeting –supposedly the cure for all ills in modern marketing – was one of the least important factors.

So it’s science, innit. The quality of creative work is clearly important if you’re interested in increasing profits and sales. Which you are, presumably.

But what of creative awards? Do they tell you anything besides which French rosé is de rigueur this year?

Even among agency folk, creative awards are polarising. The big awards shows tend to be characterised by ‘ads for ad people’ – work focused primarily on winning awards rather than being effective in the real world.

However, that might be a false dichotomy. According to Les Binet and Peter Field’s work for the IPA, creatively awarded campaigns are more efficient at driving market share growth than non-awarded campaigns (see above).

It’s worth noting that this research has generated some debate in recent weeks. In an intriguing article for BBH Labs, Harry Guild questions the role of survivorship bias in Binet and Field’s findings. He argues that the analysed campaigns may not be representative of campaigns in general, since “nobody’s entering dross into the IPA”.

In response to that article, Binet acknowledged the limitations of the research, but pointed out that other research institutes such as Ehrenberg-Bass and Nielsen have reached similar conclusions.

At the very least, the IPA findings suggest that highly awarded work is more effective than less awarded work. And as Binet puts it: “By comparing the good with the better with the best, you just might learn a thing or two about how to improve your game.”

To state what may seem obvious, marketers can benefit from good creative work – and can benefit even more from great work.

Which brings us to the thorny issue of how to know whether creative work is great, good, bad or ‘Kendall Jenner-Pepsi’. And, ideally, to know this before the work is exposed to an unforgiving world.

No problem, right? All you need to do is some creative pre-testing.

Not so fast.

Unfortunately, pre-testing can’t predict how people will actually respond to creative work. As David Ogilvy once quipped: “The problem with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”

In fact, Peter Field has demonstrated a negative correlation between the use of quantitative pre-testing and the success of IPA award entries. This implies that if you use quantitative methods to pre-test your creative work, you might be doing the opposite of what you intend thereby reducing its likelihood of success.

The evidence for qualitative pre-testing is more anecdotal, but there are many examples of great campaigns that almost didn’t happen because of such testing. As Lucian Trestler recently noted: “some of the most effective ideas of all time were slaughtered in qual”.

READ MORE: Guinness’s ‘Surfer’ ad didn’t do that well in research ‘but we ignored it’

So if you can’t rely on pre-testing, what can you do?

This answer will probably disappoint you, but my recommendation is that you loosen your grip on the creative process. Creative work is like a rebellious teenager – the more you try to control it, the less it will do what you want.

With that in mind, the first step is to give your agency some space. Brief them well, then let them do their thing.

Second, remember that it doesn’t really matter whether you ‘like’ the creative work or not. What matters is how your customers respond to it.

And third, don’t analyse the work to death. It will inevitably lead to compromise, and the end result will be anodyne (or worse).

If you provide the right conditions for good creative work, the work will reward you. Trust me – I’m a doctor.

Dr Ryan Wallman is associate creative director at Wellmark. 



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